What do ‘academic careers’ look like? Part 1: Dirty laundry
I was prompted to write this by a series of tweets in which people currently working in academia shared their first 5 jobs.
These included things like: McJob, Deserted Hotel Barman, Arthouse Cinema Dogsbody (@marklester), street musician, software quality assurance (@3blue1brown), cat caretaker, garden centre plant arranger, golf course bartender (@acapellascience), children’s theatre actor, chocolate store employee, bagel slinger, museum specimem preparator (@ehmee). You get the feel.
Two things struck me:
- I didn’t see anything that went: school > undergrad > masters > PhD > postdoc > full time / tenure track > permanent job.
- Even my own path, which I’d always thought to be pretty academic, wasn’t actually that way.
Why is this important?
Because, like our Shadow CVs (the CV with all the jobs we didn’t get, all the funding refused, articles never published) – see mine here – they give us a fuller, more realistic, picture of academic work and careers.
Because, they make us more human. Academics are like everyone else. Struggling at times, or perhaps all the time. Taking opportunities, including unglamorous ones. It reminds me of the wonderful title of Steven Shapin’s book: Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as If It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority.
So what does my ‘academic’ career look like?
First, a caveat: while I am currently employed in a full time, ‘permanent’ job (though we can all still get fired or made redundant, or have our departments close etc), I am not at the end of my career. I have no idea what will become of it, and whether at the end of the day, it will merit the word ‘career’.
The point here is not to list all the ‘academic’ bits of my working life but the other bits.
So here it is. I hope it makes academic careers seem like the fuzzy, unglamorous mess that they really are.
Job 1: Looking up articles on microfiche for my mum.
When I was 16 my mum got me 2 weeks’ work going to the library to find articles and copy them from microfiche to paper. This is important because it says something of the often invisible privilege that has powered the glass escalator I have ridden in many aspects of my life. Even before I had finished school, I knew what journal articles were, some of them even had my mum’s name as an author. At the time my dream job was to be a roller coaster designer, and I had no idea that this was normalising and introducing me to a world that would become my job for decades!
(As a side note, mum and I have since published a paper together!)
Job 2: Brushing up off-cuts from the floor in a flower shop
My best friend’s parents ran a flower shop. At Christmas they were crazy busy. They gave me a job sometimes sweeping the floor. To be honest, it felt like a fun way to be with my mate, and get some free money in the process.
Job 3: Temp for an agricultural charity.
I failed at doing a mail merge in my test at the temp agency, so I couldn’t get a decent office job. But I did get 7 days work at a charity for farmers. For a couple of days I was phoning vets for references so we could send out money to help farmers (it was at a time of crisis with Foot and Mouth disease). After that, I was in the basement shredding documents. All. Day.
Job 4: Working at a party and joke shop
‘Celebrations’ in Oxford was an institution. Sadly it closed down in 2019
I walked in one day and the owner, who was not quite as tall as me (by a long way), asked if I could reach a mask of Tony Blair down off a high shelf. I did so. She asked if I was interested in working for them, and I said yes.
I think I got just over 4 pounds an hour, in a little brown envelope on the last shift I did each week. I kept this going during my Masters and PhD, often working Saturdays, but also the odd morning or afternoon during the week.
Halloween was crazy fun. We had people queuing out of the door all day. Other memorable moments included the day we got to try on the new costumes for hire and have our photos taken for the ‘catalogue’ (which was a scrappy album we gave to customers to help choose a costume). I also got to explain the three different types of fake turd we had in stock (straight, curly, and floating), and workshop trickier costumes like ‘jellyfish’. Then there were shifts when I didn’t ring the till once. I just counted the minutes in a tally chart.
Job 5: Teas, coffees & biscuits (and washing up) for my Department
I don’t remember how I got this one. Probably because I got on well with the admin staff, and they saw me around all the time.
When my Department had a function, I would get an instruction like this: TCBx50 out 1030 clear 11. I would get the keys to the kitchen cupboards, and get the cistern going for the tea and coffee, and put the biscuits out. Sometimes I would take deliveries from other providers for lunch. I would top up the water if needed. And when everyone went back to their work, I would clear it all up and doing the washing up.
Glamorous? Not really. Academic? Not quite. But did give me extra contact with some senior people in my Department, and ‘soften’ some of those academic relationships. And that mattered.
I nearly got to the end of my PhD without being paid a penny to do anything academic at all. The closest I got was a couple of one-off tutoring gigs (for a couple of hours).
Since then I had an Research Assistant job, Postdoc, then a lectureship.
But I have also worked as a freediving instructor on weekends.
All these jobs were part of how I have become me, and have woven into the fabric of my working life in some way. They’ve all appeared on my CV at some point (though not all of them would be listed now!).
So there you go. My academic ‘career’ isn’t so academic after all.
My next post will be about how I’ve tried to make the more ‘academic’ bits of my so-called ‘career’ work.